Over a year after a quartet of countries – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt – began a diplomatic blockade of Qatar, a network of secret benefactors and wealthy lobby groups has opened a new propaganda war targeting Western media and politicians for influence. A key prize in these covert efforts is the next FIFA World Cup, being held in Qatar in 2022.
Qatar’s position as host of one of the world’s biggest sporting events has drawn scrutiny and controversy since it was announced in 2010. A major win for the Gulf state’s aspirations to brand itself as a global power, it has been criticized by human rights and anti-corruption activists, and is at the center of politicking from the country’s regional rivals.
WikiTribune has been looking into what appear to be covert attempts to use accusations of human rights abuses and corruption to attack the Qatari government and prevent the next World Cup from going ahead.
Eyebrows raised over transparency initiative’s secrets
On May 31, London’s Four Seasons hotel played host to the launch event for the Foundation for Sports Integrity (FFSI), an organization whose stated aim is “expose and combat corruption in sport, and help to restore credibility to international sports governance.”
Attendees included a member of the British parliament, Damien Collins, prominent sports journalists and anti-corruption campaigners, former BBC and English Football Association head Greg Dyke, and footballers including former U.S. women’s team goalkeeper Hope Solo. Those flown in from outside of London were offered accommodation in Hilton hotels and hefty fees to speak at the event.
Two days day before the launch event, British tabloid The Sun published a report it said was compiled from information leaked by the FFSI, stating it had new information about how Qatar used corrupt means to win the bid to host the 2022 World Cup.
Nicholas McGeehan, an expert in labor rights in the Gulf, told WikiTribune he had been invited to speak at the FFSI’s launch event, but his suspicions were raised by the foundation’s lavish spending.
“I asked for assurances that I could talk about labor practices in other Gulf states, not just Qatar, and that it wasn’t Gulf money. I said that would be a red flag,” said McGeehan. “A few days later I was uninvited.”
WikiTribune spoke to Jaimie Fuller, the FFSI’s chairman, CEO of the sportswear brand SKINS and a long-term campaigner for transparency in sport.
The FFSI’s funding came from a “high net worth benefactor” whose involvement was “conditional on anonymity,” said Fuller.
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Fuller told WikiTribune “categorically” that the funding did not come from Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates. He also said he had no idea how the Sun got hold of information that was part of a “work in progress.” He also said FFSI did not focus on Qatar or FIFA over other areas of corruption in sport.
The FFSI’s website has so far only made four official statements. Three of these relate to its own launch event, including the claims of a Russian whistleblower about a state-sponsored doping program. The last is a criticism of FIFA for having Qatar Airways as a sponsor, after the CEO of Qatar Airways was criticized for telling the International Air Transport Association that an airline “has to be led by a man.”
How to win a World Cup and influence nations
The rivalry between Qatar and its rivals, notably the “quartet” of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt appeared to reach crisis point when the latter four first imposed a blockade against Qatar in June 2017.
The four countries blocked all land, air, and sea routes into the country, alleging that its government was contravening Gulf Cooperation Council agreements to prevent the sponsorship of groups linked to terrorists.
Several news outlets including the Financial Times and New York Times have reported that Qatar’s government agreed hostage payments approaching $1 billion to militant groups after the 2015 kidnapping of 26 Qatari nationals, including members of the royal family. Qatari and UAE officials also traded allegations of cyberwarfare and similar “provocations” in the build-up to the blockade.
Among 13 ultimatums, the quartet demanded Qatar’s state owned media network, Al Jazeera, be closed down and that the country break ties with ally Iran. Along with several other states including Senegal, Chad, the Maldives, Comoros, and Yemen’s Hadi government, they withdrew diplomats and broke diplomatic ties with Qatar, though some only temporarily.
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The blockade caused immediate food insecurity and Qatar’s stock market to lose 10 percent of value, but much of that was short-term, with food and other supplies brought in via Turkey and Iran, with the stock market recovering 6 percent in the first few weeks alone.
Increasingly, the blockade’s efforts appear to be focused at limiting Qatar’s ability to host the 2022 World Cup. In November 2017, The Intercept reported on documents leaked from the UAE embassy in Washington DC, which appeared to outline plans to use the blockade to cause a run on the Qatari currency, the riyal, causing a financial crisis that would ultimately force Qatar to abandon plans to host the football tournament.
‘We can expect four years of journalistic sensationalism’ – Gulf expert
Like hosting the Olympics, putting on the event is seen as a “major prize” for a country’s brand, according to Teemu Moilanen, author of How to Brand Nations, Cities and Destinations.
“Although the hosting country/city is not the main topic of most news, thousands and thousands of stories will be published/shared in social media about the host,” said Moilanen “In most cases the tone of voice is highly positive and also has a highly positive impact on global awareness and perception of the host.”
Qatar is estimated to be spending $200 billion on hosting the tournament, mainly on stadiums and hotels as well as other necessary infrastructure like metro lines and railways, which are integral to a long-term economic plan outlined in Qatar National Vision 2030.
Being forced into abandoning the tournament would not just constitute a financial disaster and “a massive blow in the form of a lost opportunity” as Moilanen put it, but a humiliation on the global stage.
“Concerned citizens” and anonymous activists
Well-funded foundations such as the FFSI are not alone in citing concerns over corruption and Qatar’s human rights record to raise questions over whether it is right for the 2022 tournament to go ahead.
Over the past few years there has been a slew of accounts on social media and anonymous websites, purportedly aimed at raising awareness of the plight of migrant workers on Qatar’s World Cup infrastructure, or making allegations over the state’s complicity in financing terrorists.
These accounts and websites often feature well-produced videos and paid-for-promotion social media posts. They often do not provide proof of their allegations, but channel concerns such as human rights abuses suffered by workers on stadium sites.
Preparing for propaganda
UK organization Spinwatch, which investigates lobbying and public relations, released a report on July 24 detailing extensive allegations of a covert and well-funded pro-UAE lobby with links to the UK government.
Spinwatch says it has seen evidence of extensive plans to build up hostility toward the Qatar World Cup in the UK, featuring an expensively-promoted video campaign and advertising on public transport.
With the World Cup in Russia over, experts says these campaigns appear set to increase in their scope and frequency. “It is no coincidence that as soon as the World Cup in Russia is over, the focus turned very quickly to Qatar,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, author of The United Arab Emirates: Power, Politics and Policy-Making.
“The quartet will do whatever it can to keep that focus on Qatar. The Olympics in 2020 is going to take place in Japan, which is unlikely to be of controversy,” said Ulrichsen. “This means Qatar will remain in focus and we can expect four years of journalistic sensationalism.”
Some of the charges levelled at Qatar – including the treatment of low paid foreign workers – could equally apply to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, said Urichsen. “So you have to wonder about the effectiveness of this strategy.”